Hercules In The Haunted World (Mario Bava, 1961)
aka HERCULES IN THE CENTER OF THE EARTH / ERCOLE AL CENTRO DELLA TERRA / HERCULES VS. THE VAMPIRES
After thwarting an assassination attempt on his life and that of his best friend, Theseus, Hercules returns to Ecalia. Upon his arrival to see his beloved, Deianira, Hercules learns that Uriteis, the king of Ecalia has died under mysterious circumstances. Deianira, the king’s daughter, has suddenly taken a strange illness, rendering her incapable of ascending to the throne. Her uncle, Lyco, has taken over in her place as a great evil descends upon the city. Hercules learns the only way to cure Deianira is to traverse the horrors of Hades and retrieve a magical stone. But first, to be able to enter and leave the Land of the Dead alive, a Golden Apple, a treasure of the evil God Pluto in the marshes of Hesperides must be obtained. Meanwhile, the vile Lyco plans to sacrifice Deianira to Pluto during an eclipse; drinking her blood and gaining immortality in the process, and plunging Ecalia into eternal darkness forever.
An exquisitely stylish and visually impressive film from Mario Bava–who is like a little kid in a candy store with his new toy: Technicolor film stock–this is hands down, one of the most gorgeous 81 minutes of film you are ever likely to see; a macabre painting brought lovingly to life by Mario Bava’s gleefully inventive approach to the material. Anyone familiar with his techniques showcased in such films as THE MASK OF SATAN (1960) or BLACK SABBATH (1963) will know what to expect here, as Bava’s trademark style is present in abundance. With what was reportedly a minuscule budget compared to that usually afforded these films, Bava of course, used his ingenuity to cover up budgetary shortcomings, making use of limited sets by simply rearranging or combining existing sets to make them appear different. Also, the use of mirrors is employed to give the illusion you are seeing more than what is actually there and painted backdrops being utilised to great effect, complimenting the nightmarish world of Hades. This also lends the proceedings a cadaverously opulent, operatic feel. Bava also goes the full mile by incorporating opaque colours and gels and milky black shadows to drive home his fantastic vision.
Not content with just the films direction, Bava also handles the cinematography as well as the effects work which in itself saved some valuable production money. What is immediately noticeable upon seeing this film is that Bava creates some interesting ways to shoot action sequences. Numerous shots display some wonderfully varied angles within which the action takes place. Bava utilizes wide shots from afar to allow the viewer to see the scope of the scene at hand. There are also some striking composite shots during the lengthy Hades sequence including one in which Hercules and Theseus are atop a massive precipice looking down into an enormous sea of flame. Whereas directors both before and after Bava’s entry were content with “playing it safe” when it came to shooting the action scenes. This is taking nothing away from the number of true artisans that laboured away in the genre, it’s just refreshing to see it done with as much vigour and love for creating something special. Bava not only loved movies, but loved making them, too.
Reg Park was a former Mr. Universe, having won the title in 1951, 1958 and 1965 and had even attained second place against Steve Reeves in 1950. Park didn’t partake in Italian cinema for the fame but for a stepping stone for his future business ventures in body building and fitness. He starred in five films in the genre with the remaining four being HERCULES & THE CAPTIVE WOMEN (1961), HERCULES, PRISONER OF EVIL (1964), MACISTE IN KING SOLOMON’S MINES (1964) and HERCULES THE AVENGER (1965). Each of Park’s torch and toga movies diminished wildly in quality, with HERCULES, PRISONER OF EVIL (1964) being an especially limp and lazy effort from Antonio Margheriti; one that returned to the horror elements that made Bava’s movie so enduring. One of the most famous men inspired by Park is none other than Arnold Schwarzenegger who held great reverence for Park, plastering his walls with posters and articles about the distinguished British muscleman. Reg Park would die on 22nd November 2007 after losing his battle with skin cancer.
Christopher Lee is an odd but easily gratifying choice to play the lead villain, Lyco. What is disappointing here and really the only negative I can levy at the film is that Lee did not dub his own voice. So much more depth of character and malice would have been evoked had Lee dubbed his dialogue in his patented deep, commanding tone. Lee was a great admirer of Bava and I’m sure was delighted at the chance of working with the grand old man of Euro horror. Lee was, of course, famous for his portrayal as Dracula in the Hammer films series and whether the role was advantageous or detrimental to his career is a matter of opinion, though vampire lore does seep its way into the narrative of HERCULES IN THE HAUNTED WORLD. Although Lyco bears no fangs, he intends to drink the blood of Deianira “when the dragon devours the moon” gaining him eternal life and transforming Deianira into the undead. While it’s not shown on screen, Lyco kills a beautiful woman in vampiric fashion; her blood running out onto the marble floor and Lyco’s visage suddenly appearing in the pool of plasma.
The set design is stupendous and Bava clearly shows his knack for making so little appear to be so much more. Other than a clunky rock monster, the effects are incredibly imaginative and innovative with what little the director had to work with. The gloriously spooky score by composer Armando Trovajoli is suitably fantastical and even includes a nicely bombastic Hercules Theme. This version of the film utilizes the original HERCULES IN THE CENTER OF THE EARTH moniker. Bava’s sole directorial effort in the fusto arena would be distributed in America by the Woolner Brothers as HERCULES IN THE HAUNTED WORLD, re-edited and cut, eliminating some important exposition. The Woolner Brothers version was released to VHS back in the late 80s from Rhino with terrible sound quality. However, the anamorphic DVD from Fantoma is a glorious presentation with the 2:35:1 framing allowing even more appreciation of Bava’s visionary and visual accomplishment. Colours are strong and the many blues and reds jump off the screen, complimenting the exemplary mise en scene of the world Bava has created. Liner notes by Tim Lucas are provided but a commentary from the man would have been the icing on the cake though nonetheless, is a welcome extra. The US trailer–under the HERCULES IN THE HAUNTED WORLD title–is on hand as is a photo gallery of stills and poster artwork. English and Italian language soundtracks are available options as well as English subtitles, which give a slightly different interpretation of the storyline. The mono sound quality is also strong throughout.
Enough cannot be said about Mario Bava’s commendable journey into this misunderstood genre. An auspicious start for Bava entering the world of colour photography; his stamp hovers and engulfs every frame of this picture. One of the finest achievements of Bava’s distinguished career and easily one of the best and best-loved muscleman movies to ever come out of the fabled Cinecitta Studios of Italy.